There is every reason why the strange and unsettling fate of Joseph K, the central character of Franz Kafka’s novel, should provide fertile material for Philip Glass. His unmistakable musical style is well suited to the episodic nature of the story and to underscoring the tension and unease that permeates the tale of the downfall of Joseph K. And to persuade Christopher Hampton to provide the libretto ought to have sealed the deal. But, despite all these strengths, the opera never quite works.
Kafka, who was born in Prague, began the novel in 1914. Like all great works, it has been claimed by a number of cultural and political causes but it has always eluded easy categorisation.
Glass has said that he thinks the story is highly comic but, even if that is the key to his reading of the tale, it is only partly true – it is perverse to ignore the underlying tide of paranoia that leads to the downfall of Joseph K.
Music Theatre Wales has had a long association with Philip Glass and this production is clearly put together with a real love of the man’s music. It is a chamber opera with a small orchestra and small cast all of whom, except Johnny Herford, sing more than one role. The conductor Michael Rafferty finds a rhythm for the piece that frees it from memories of the more extreme forms of minimalism of Glass’ early operas and the rhythmic and harmonic repetition that divided audiences. The twelve strong orchestra respond well to Rafferty’s guiding hand as do the singers. With very little opportunity to develop strong melodic personalities, they respond with relish to the dramatic opportunities given to them by director Michael McCarthy.
Johnny Herford as Joseph K has a fine voice but, with little chance to display his vocal talents, his portrayal of the hapless hero is driven by a painful sense that he has no control over any of the things that happen to him. In his personal relationships, as well as in his dealings with “the court”, he seems an innocent in a wicked world. The people who appear to help him or to exploit him are well drawn – special praise for Paul Curievici as the enigmatic artist Titorelli and to Amanda Forbes as Leni. The set is spare but very effective and the constant sense that everyone is watching everyone else helps to underscore the sense of paranoia.
But all this brings us back to the central problem of Glass’ music. The lack of dramatic force is just too evident – the sense that there is a series of irrational events leading remorselessly to a tragic climax is not there in the score and no amount of fine singing and dramatic visual images can save the opera from seeming flat and uninvolving.